[This Commentary originally appeared in the November 30, 1989 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
When sociologists look into a civilization, they often discover certain underlying consistencies. These attitudes, actions and customs all fall under the heading of “culture.” While culture can be invented – through folklore and mythology – time typically nurtures and creates the mores of a society.
America has its own richly refined experience. The cowboy, fighter pilot and even Superman represent that which has been imbued into and upon every citizen of these United States. Marginally irreverent, but always gallant, our country has historically taken up the challenge few others can even imagine to try. Our creativity, combined with our stick-to-it-iveness, begets mannerisms which ultimately lead to the American Dream.
Exploration and discovery have driven us as a nation since our beginning over 200 years ago. Yet, our confidence cannot be associated with any sort of international cockiness. Indeed, only within the last generation has America shown energetic resolve in world affairs. (The Monroe Doctrine results from essentially domestic concerns.) Our isolationism only amplified our culture. We forged a new nation from a raw continent, looking ever westward, and left the traditional – and unconstructive – games of diplomacy to the continually warring tribes of Europe.
Europe led the world for nearly five centuries after the dark ages. But, while the knight-errant fell out of style, the feudal system of government which spawned him stayed intact. This repression fathered America, and, with ultimate irony, inhibited cultural growth on the continent of the Renaissance. The arts and sciences flourished, and so did philosophy. But, though paintings, sculptures and scientific academies became fixed within the geography, much of the new philosophy of freedom, humanity and the Social Contract was exported to the American colonies.
Heavily influenced by the new European philosophers, Thomas Jefferson et al conceived a truly representative democratic republic not seen since the days of ancient Rome. With the innovative American character thus born on a one-page parchment and institutionalized with the Constitution a little over a decade later, it took nearly a century for that infant ideal to grow into its full promise. One would hope Jefferson’s declaration continues to bloom.
Our cousins across the ocean, on the other hand, have a quite different culture to contend with. Many of us, whose forebears came from the serf classes, grew up with stories of oppression and subsistence living. The glow of the American Dream filled our ancestors, who not only passed that torch to us, but, through their actions, deplored habitual European constraints.
Any visitor to Europe readily sees the difference in attitude, particularly among the general populace. Europeans possess little faith in their government because they never had any reason to trust their leaders. The royals regularly reaped the rewards while the subservient masses paid the costs. With the monarchies, governing became a parlor game for the rich. Like the CEO who did not come through the ranks, they never really understood life among the peasants.
In America, for all our complaints about elected officials, we carry a confidence in our ability to change the government – either directly by running for political office or indirectly by choosing who to vote for. Such a disposition does not appear readily among European citizens. Centuries of tyranny burdens their collective culture. In Europe, barbarian bullies rape and pillage. In America, Horatio Alger works hard and overcomes those same brutes.
Our cultural maturity confirms within all of us our ability to control our destiny. The same may not be said of the whole of Europe. With the rapid decay of the artificial borders between east and west, one wonders how Europeans will handle their new found freedom. Will those in power fall back to the role of monarchist and try to solidify their position, albeit for more beneficent reasons? Will the masses, long accustomed to being controlled, yield to the next charismatic leader to fill the newly created void?
Will Europeans not have the confidence to use the voting booth as a smooth method for effecting change within government? Will, like the Italians, they naïvely (or cynically) employ the ballot box to sophomorically choke the government before it has enough time to do anything? Will the long established territorial divisions within the European Community impede the forethinker’s ability to unify the continent? Finally, will the world realize a unified Europe presents the only non-threatening means to unify the Germanies?
And where does (or will) America fit in? For the past 40 years we have comfortably assumed the position of unquestioned leadership. A changing Europe changes our role within that group of nations. Clearly, our own culture prevents us from being overlord, for we believe all peoples have the right to self-government.
Our dogma leaves us with two realistic choices. We can revert back to isolationist ways and let Europe be Europe. But, in the spirit of the commitment of the Marshall Plan, such an act would be irresponsible. It would also assume, rather unsophisticatedly, we can go back to a time when America could survive in an isolated environment.
More reasonably, our nation can help manage the changes in Europe. Our expectation will be of a Europe which takes more responsibility for its own affairs. This expectation would be tempered by an America which does not prematurely forsake its responsibility to Europe. By taking a proactive role, we continue to show faith in the maturation process of European culture both by guidance and by our acceptance that, eventually, our role will be one of partner – not undisputed leader.
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]